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The best documentaries on YouTube about your favourite writers

Staying in this January with resolutions to write more? Here’s a guide to some insightful, inspiring docs that get inside the mind of Plath, Ballard, Burroughs and more

Haven’t you always wanted to enter the mind behind your favourite novel? Writers are shy, reclusive and drink nervewracking amounts of coffee – they’re not easy to get to know. If you have designs on becoming one, you may want an insight on their process, their obsessions and how they sculpt their stories. But maybe your favourite authors are dead, or live a life of solitude. That’s where these documentaries come in, all of them available now on YouTube.

There’s JG Ballard on his fascination with motorways, Sylvia Plath talking about where her poems come from and Margaret Atwood going deep on The Handmaid’s Tale. Dive in.

JG BALLARD

Learn more about the mind behind your favourite dystopian visions. Celebrated for his so-called urban disaster trilogy (Concrete Island, High-Rise, Crash), Ballard here walks us through his 50-year-spanning career, including the controversy surrounding the release of Crash, about which one reviewer said: “This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish.” On top of his interest in the unsettling connection between eroticism and car crashes, Ballard talks about his fascination with urban landscapes, motorways, multi-storey car parks and abandoned hotels – the building blocks of the fictional worlds you fell in love with. Time to re-read High-Rise.

MARGARET ATWOOD

The award-winning Canadian author of The Handmaid’s Tale is the subject of this BBC Imagine doc, in which she talks about coming up in a world of male writers during a time of deep gender inequality. As one talking-head puts it: “She just blew away all of the borders, all the shut doors, she just blew them all open.” Atwood herself zeroes in on the timeliness of The Handmaid’s Tale, a cautionary tale about the misuse of power, which rings true in 2017 for obvious reasons. This is the story of the literary pioneer’s life and work across seven decades.

 

 

KURT VONNEGUT

Turns out the wild wit you find in the pages of Vonnegut is, happily, discernable in the man himself. In this doc, the American author of the darkly satirical Slaughterhouse-Five talks about his 50-year career, reading extracts from his novels in his deadpan drawl. He looks back at his early days of writing for magazines – specifically his back-and-forth correspondence with editors – and how it taught him the craft of storytelling. He also mentions how he introduced comical sci-fi elements into Slaughterhouse-Five. Not an easy thing to do when your book’s solemn subject is the horrific bombing of Dresden in WWII.

 

 

SYLVIA PLATH

This shabby but nevertheless enlightening doc sheds light on how, in her 30 years on this planet, Sylvia Plath was so prolific. With insights from critics and family members, it looks at the life and work of The Bell Jar author, her influences, her influence, and her ability to take mundane material from her everyday life – caring for kids, chopping onions, taking calls – and turning it into extraordinary poetry. As she puts it: “I think my poems come immediately out of the sensuous and the emotional experience.”

JAMES ELLROY

In this film, you realise how differently the LA Confidential author sees the world, how he’s drawn to its dark and sordid corners. Ellroy has spent an unhealthy amount of time reading and writing about serial killers and, for him, it’s personal. Here, the crime writer looks into his own mother’s mysterious murder and the unknown killer who was never brought to justice. It reads like one of his novels, littered with short sentences that grab you by the throat. Which is hardly surprising given that his mother’s death is at the heart of every one of those novels. Speaking about her, he reads, “Your death defines my life.”

 


 

 

WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS AND THE BEATS

Lastly, here’s a look at the Beat Generation’s founders, Jack KerouacAllen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. The doc opens with a question: “The Beat movement – revolutionary thinking or drug-hazed navel gazing?” To answer that question, movie stars Johnny Depp and Dennis Hopper are wheeled in to read, in character, from On the Road (Kerouac) and Naked Lunch (Burroughs). Then Ginsberg himself appears to shed light on the movement, one that was fuelled by an insatiable thirst for “kicks”, celebrating a marginalised way of life, and always, always doing everything their own way.